The Secret Life of Sharon Stone

First of all, erase from your mind the image of Sharon Stone, icy sex goddess. She certainly looked the part—and played it to the hilt—in...

First of all, erase from your mind the image of Sharon Stone, icy sex goddess. She certainly looked the part—and played it to the hilt—in her breakout role, the man-eating novelist Catherine Tramell, in the 1992 thriller “Basic Instinct.” Her performance (and, yes, the leg-crossing thing) was so indelible that, nearly three decades on, her public persona remains frozen as a femme fatale. But that isn’t a particularly useful way to understand who Stone is: a seeker, a survivor, a no-bullshit artist, a commanding talent (just rewatch her Oscar-nominated role in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”), and a bit of a kook. This was evident moments into a recent Zoom call, when Stone, signing on from her home in West Hollywood, stumbled in with the teleconferencing equivalent of a pratfall, shocked at her own ability to get the sound working. “Can you hear me?” she said. “Do I have it together?”

In a way, Stone explores both of those questions in her new autobiography, “The Beauty of Living Twice” (Knopf), in which she is uncommonly candid about life, fame, and trauma. In spiky, reflective, nonlinear prose, she writes about “Basic Instinct” (and, yes, the leg-crossing thing, which she says was shot without her knowledge, although she consented to it later by not bringing an injunction against the filmmakers); her near-death experience, in 2001, when she had a serious stroke and underwent seven hours of brain surgery; her upbringing in rural Pennsylvania; and the exploitative gender politics of Hollywood before #MeToo. She also recalls her maternal grandfather’s sexual abuse of her sister when they were children, and writes, in dreamlike detail, about having witnessed it personally. (In our conversation, she seemed to back away from that claim, although she recently told the Times that they made the decision to disclose their experience “together.”) At sixty-three, Stone wants to be understood—by the world, by the industry that pigeonholed her and then seemed to forget she was there, and, perhaps most of all, by herself.

When we spoke, Stone, in hoop earrings and pink lip gloss, had just received a coveted book endorsement—from Oprah Winfrey—and was in disbelief. “When I withdrew from college,” she said, “I had two very interesting discussions: one with my accounting teacher, who constantly called me ‘Stone, you mental midget,’ and the other one with my writing teacher, who said, ‘I don’t want you to quit, because you’re meant to be a writer.’ ” Guffawing, she added, “I’m hoping that they were both right.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I saw on Instagram that you’ve been watercoloring. How have you been spending your days in quarantine?

I started painting again at the beginning of COVID. I hadn’t painted in years, so I got some adult paint-by-numbers, so that I could get used to pushing the paint around and getting the feel of the brushes. In every one of my paintings, I had these tiny little dots. I don’t know what they’re representing, but I made this one really playful painting that is looking down on the ocean. And then I did another one that’s very dense, heavy floral—and then I wrote, like, a Chinese poem, backward across the top of it using these dots.

I feel strongly that we all have to have some kind of faith in something—nature, the way we see God. There’s something about these dots that express that language to me. There’s something about that in the book. It’s about finding love in whatever storm, in whatever experience. You have to find your love language.

You write that “when I’m not busy being Sharon Stone, I’m rather shy.” What does “being Sharon Stone” mean to you?

When I got famous, [my publicist] Cindi [Berger] called me. We had to have a public persona, because I had to go out there and sell “Basic Instinct.” What Cindi knows about me that most people don’t is that I’m almost agoraphobic. In astrological conceits—and I don’t know if anybody else believes this baloney—I’m born in the week of the loner on the day of the loner, so I’m very introverted. It was a physical onslaught, what happened to me. I had the kind of fame where people chase you down the street, and stores have to lock the doors and hide you. People get on the top of your car until the car actually caves in, and they rip off the rearview mirrors and the license plates, and SWAT teams are called. So that will introvert a gal.

Also, I had a massive brain injury, so my brain seizes 24/7, but I take a drug to stop that. When I have a cold, or like now, I’m in late-stage menopause, my brain swells. I have a little bit of hearing loss in my right ear, and when I’m on a call with six people, the pressure on my brain makes me want to flip: “Everybody has to stop talking.” I can really lose it, and nobody has compassion for that, because they don’t know what the hell is happening to me.

When you had the stroke, your right vertebral artery tore, and you write that you had a one-per-cent chance of survival. How did you think about your own mortality?

I didn’t know until I got home and read People magazine that I had to wait thirty days to see if I was even going to live. Nobody was communicating with me. Even twenty years ago, women’s rights were so much less than they are now, and nobody was listening to me, which is why I still scream to be heard. I still fight with doctors, because I panic when people don’t listen to me. It was very traumatic to be in this situation where you put your teacup down and you don’t know where you put it, you don’t know people that are coming and going, and you’re fighting to stay alive. You know, I think disease is dis-ease, and these things happen usually when you’re strung out or stressed out, or when things aren’t going great.

After the stroke, you write about your former self, “I don’t miss her; it’s like a person I knew very intimately, but not me.” How were you changed?

I think about it scientifically. I bled so much into my subarachnoid space that my brain was literally shoved into the front of my face. The right side of my face fell from the pressure. I feel almost like my DNA shifted. I was a sort of curvaceous, full kind of person, and I lost eighteen per cent of my body mass. I never liked curry, and then it became one of my favorite things. Food I really liked I became allergic to, medicines I became allergic to, all kinds of things changed. I had this feeling of calm, even though everything was going wrong. It was a strange feeling of being protected: if I was living, I was living for a reason.

How long did it take you to start acting again, and, when you did, did you have to use your body differently in front of the camera?

I got some jobs here and there. But no matter why you step out of the business—somebody dies, you get hurt, you go to prison—you go to the back of the line. Robin Williams started over. John Travolta started over. It doesn’t matter how high up you were, if you were “Saturday Night Fever,” if you were “Basic Instinct.” It’s like there’s this ritual in my business. I’m not really sure about the point of it, exactly.

Paul Verhoeven was the only person in the business who came to see me, I think because I was clearly having some mini seizures when I was doing “Basic Instinct.” I would go like this. [She tilts her head back and flutters her eyes.] I used to tell people I was having them, and nobody would believe me. Verhoeven said, “People think you’re taking drugs at work.” And I kept saying, “I’m not taking drugs, and I don’t know why this happens to me.” So when this [stroke] happened, there was a little bit of “Ohhh.”

At the time you had the stroke, you were also in your forties, a notoriously difficult age for women in Hollywood.

For what reason, really? It’s when you’re your most beautiful, your most talented, your most successful. So let’s oppress women, because they might become more powerful than men, and then look what would happen. That might stop some of the killing and craziness!

You were recently on “Ratched,” playing a bloodthirsty heiress with a monkey on her shoulder. [She rolls her eyes.] Do you feel like going into your sixties is an opportunity to embrace more eccentricity?

I don’t have a manager or agents anymore. I let them go, or they let me go—or both, depending on who we’re talking about. I just felt like I need to start making some of my own decisions, instead of just constantly having to play the villain. After “Basic Instinct,” it was, like, “If there’s a villain, let’s get Sharon Stone.” It’s a little bit tedious, because my life is not remotely villainous. All I do is endless philanthropic and humanitarian stuff.

In your book, you say you originally wanted to be a director and then realized that it was not a profession that was welcoming to women. Is that something you might consider again?

I don’t know. I presented an initiative to the Aspen Institute a couple days ago. I’ve enjoyed that kind of work. Sometimes I go to The Hague, and I really like that. At this point, I would consider a limited series or a movie a year, if they’re really good. But my kids and I are really enjoying each other. They like it when I’m here writing and painting, and a lot of the work in this humanitarian world I can do from home. It’s a joy to try to work on these initiatives. It’s not this kind of—I don’t know why I want to say “insouciant competitiveness,” but that sort of thing. I don’t have that need, that hunger. If the director really wants me, and I feel like the part is for me, that’s a project for me. I don’t like to work toward pettiness and triviality anymore. I’ve been through too much.

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